The Tarahumara and the Marathon Monks

The Tarahumara, an indigenous Mexican people, are renowned for their running feats. They run for fun, transportation and ceremonial purposes from childhood into their sixties. Distances of more than a hundred miles in a single session are not uncommon, typically run barefoot or in sandals made from tyres.

Various explanations for their abilities have been put forward, from genetics to their toe-strike running style to the huge quantities of corn beer they consume the night before a long run. The likelihood is that all of these, combined with a culture that revolves around running from an early age, produce these incredible feats of endurance.

However, the Tarahumara have rivals for the title of world’s greatest endurance athletes from a very different group of people whose abilities are not so easily explained.

For a thousand years, the Tendai Buddhist monks of Mount Hiei near Kyoto, Japan have practiced a form of training called Kaihōgyō. The Kaihōgyō lasts seven years beginning with running 40 km per day for one hundred consecutive days for each of the first three years. That’s a little short of marathon distance. They wear bamboo sandals, stick to a diet of a rice ball and a bowl of noodles a day, and are given no reprieve from their other duties at the monastery, meaning that they may have time for only a few hours sleep a night. In years four and five, the monks run 40 km a day for two hundred days, then in year six, 60 km a day for one hundred days. In the last year, they must run 84 km, two marathons back-to-back, every day for one hundred days, followed immediately by 40 km a day for another hundred days. In all, they cover over 46,000 km, more than the circumference of the planet.

During the fifth year, the monks undergo the Doiri, or entering the temple. They meditate for nine days straight with no food, water or sleep. Theoretically, both the lack of sleep and dehydration should be fatal and yet many survive.

So how are they able to perform these feats? Unlike the Tarahumara, they have no close common genetic heritage, no running culture instilled from childhood and they survive on a Spartan diet that doesn’t include copious quantities of corn beer. Could the answer lie in the doctrines of Tendai Buddhism?

Maybe, but there are two caveats to consider.

First of all, completion of the Kaihōgyō is a rare event – only forty-six people in the last four hundred years have managed it.

Second, the monks are highly motivated. They carry a knife and a rope during their runs. If they find themselves unable to continue for any reason, they must commit suicide by hanging or disembowelment. The graves of those who didn’t make it line the course that the monks run.

So, aspiring endurance runners have two options: drink lots of beer and run for pleasure, or motivate yourself with the threat of  disembowelment. Personally, it seems like a waste not to utilise my beer-drinking experience, so I figure I’ll stick with the Tarahumara approach.

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